In the Penal Colony

In the Penal Colony Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Franz Kafka's In the Penal Colony. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka was born into a middle-class Jewish family in 1883 in Prague. Throughout his life, Kafka identified strongly with qualities of his Jewish heritage—intellectualism, mysticism, and devotion to learning—but was culturally German. Kafka’s relationship to his father and his struggle with depression and social anxiety dominated his life. He never married, despite taking three different lovers, and he felt isolated all his life, unable to commune with other human beings or God. Upon obtaining a law degree in 1906 from Charles University of Prague, Kafka entered the civil service and though well-liked by his colleagues, despised this work, which took a toll on his physical and mental health. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917, and this persisted until his death in 1924. Having strong misgivings about his work, Kafka published few of his stories in his lifetime and asked that his work be destroyed, a wish that was ignored by Max Brod, a close friend from college and executor of his estate, who had the foresight to recognize the importance of Kafka’s work.
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Historical Context of In the Penal Colony

Kafka wrote “In the Penal Colony,” on the cusp of World War I in Prague—a key center of the Austro-Hungarian empire that would collapse after the war. The war began after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by a Serbian protestor acting in defiance of the empire’s claim on his country. In addition to the psychological chaos at the start of the war, Kafka’s Jewish heritage would have made him a target of derision. However, it is not clear that Kafka himself had political motivations that were inspired by the times. Kafka’s work appears to be motivated by his personal experiences, dominance of his father, his mental and physical illness, and the taxing nature of his professional work.

Other Books Related to In the Penal Colony

Kafka’s writing is widely considered to be some of the most important in Western literature.  A feature of Kafka’s work that makes it so enduring is the ambiguity of the tales and the vast array of different interpretations that can be rendered from the text. His work even has its own adjective, Kafkaesque, which means having nightmarish, complex, and illogical qualities. Often situations in Kafka’s work involve individuals who are hopelessly overpowered by terrifying and confusing systems. Such themes appear in Kafka’s other works, such as The Trial, a novel written in the same year, where an unassuming worker is arrested and held captive to stand trial without knowing the charges against him. Viewed from a dystopian lens, the short story by Harlan Ellison “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” is another example of a tale that reveals the inhumane treatment of individuals within abusive power structures. Perhaps the most famous dystopian novel, George Orwell’s novel 1984, aligns with the oppressive and grotesque struggles of individuals living in an oppressive authoritarian state that is depicted in “In the Penal Colony.”
Key Facts about In the Penal Colony
  • Full Title: In the Penal Colony
  • When Written: October 1914
  • Where Written: Prague, Austria-Hungary
  • When Published: 1919 (German), 1941 (English)
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Short story, allegorical fantasy
  • Setting: A penal colony on a tropical island
  • Climax: The officer fails to achieve redemption on the apparatus and instead dies a brutal death.
  • Antagonist: The officer and the system of authoritarian structures that do not value human life
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for In the Penal Colony

Prophesy. Some suggest that “In the Penal Colony” was a prophetic vision of the fate of the Jews in the Nazi death camps in World War II.

In Print. “In the Penal Colony” was one of the few stories that was published in Kafka’s lifetime.